Don’t blame mass shootings on mental illness

A police officer took cover behind a police vehicle as a sniper rained down rapid fire on a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip Oct 1.
A police officer took cover behind a police vehicle as a sniper rained down rapid fire on a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip Oct 1. Associated Press

Sunday’s tragic mass shooting in Las Vegas has understandably led people to wonder what could possibly motivate a person to kill more than 50 people and injure more than 500. People often blame mental illness for such acts, but they are usually wrong.

We can understand why mental illness feels like a comforting explanation. These events make us scared and anxious, and it’s helpful when we have a story that makes us feel better. If mental illness is responsible then we just need to focus on what to do about “those” people. However, as uncomfortable as it may make us feel, mental illness is rarely to blame in these events.

Less than 5 percent of gun-related violence is committed by people with diagnosed mental illnesses. In fact, only about 4 percent of all violence — with or without guns — is perpetrated by people with diagnosed mental illnesses.

Part of this explanation comes from a misunderstanding of what mental illness is. Mental illness means having a specific set of symptoms over a specific period of time. Mental illnesses are diagnosed by psychologists or other mental health professionals.

When we talk about certain mental illnesses, such as mild depressive disorders, anxiety disorders or attention deficit disorder, you probably don’t think about violence. Serious mental illness — like schizophrenia or bipolar disorders — are also not likely to cause violence. In fact, research shows that serious mental illness without substance abuse is totally unrelated to gun violence.

“Research has shown that people with serious mental illnesses are actually at far greater risk of being victims of a wide variety of violent crimes than perpetrators,” says psychologist David Susman, assistant professor in the University of Kentucky Department of Psychology and director of the Psychological Services Center and the UK Internship Consortium. People with severe mental illness are actually 11 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than people without severe mental illness.

So if mental illness doesn’t explain violence, what does? There are identifiable factors that actually do predict the likelihood of gun violence, in general (these data apply to overall gun violence, not specifically mass shootings).

Research suggests the following four things predict the likelihood that a person will commit a gun-related crime:

▪ A history of violence.

▪ Access to guns.

▪ Drug and alcohol use.

▪ Personal relationship distress.

If we are serious about addressing gun violence, these are all factors that have policy solutions. While there is a clear need for more systemic change, increased access to mental health care and substance use treatment is a critical piece of the solution.

Mental health care is more than just helping people with mental illness. Psychologists and other mental health providers help people learn to cope with their distress without violence and substance use. Having the tools to manage anger and impulsivity can give some a crucial few minutes to change their mind before becoming part of our next national tragedy.

Brighid Kleinman of Louisville is a licensed clinical psychologist and a member of the Kentucky Psychological Foundation’s Public Education Committee. Email her at brighidmkleinman@gmail.com.